Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ode to the nonconformist

A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the last several years as my boys have navigated the roughest sea that is adolescence, I have more often than not felt inept as a parent, clueless even. I have been awash with fear and uncertainty. I have questioned so much of what I have done as parent up to now, which in retrospect was joyously easy. Nothing prepared me for raising young men except my own adolescence and instinct, which is to say not much. I have frequently found myself saying to myself and to others "I just want it to be over", with my sons grown, say somewhere past about 23 years old. I can't quite believe that when I hear it come out of my mouth, because I adore them both so.

One of the recurring questions that I have when I am in the soupy uncertainty of parenting a teenager is if I did the right thing. My husband and I, unconsciously, solely based on who we are, have raised our children to buck the norm and live outside of so many conventions. We did not know we were fostering such open mindedness. It just happened, the result of our travels and political views and loud mouth debating over long tables full of Italian friends after countless delicious dinners. We were often outside the norm in Italy for our insistence that our children cultivate independence, especially of thought and responsibility. We are often outside the norm here, for our insistence that our children do not see the world from the strangely isolated, atop a mountain looking down, narrow minded view that is often American (actually, this does not require any insistence). My boys are generally the quirky in their Italian circles, and the same holds true here.

So when my younger son, the enigma, whirlwind, restless rebel with a heart of gold comes home to tell me that he participated in a debate during his economics class about his statement that the peril of America is akin to that of the Roman Empire before it crashed and burned, or about a debate over another student's comment that "America is the greatest country in the world" being based on nothing but television commercials, since this other student has never even been anywhere else, or even the existence of God, or what men call God, being compatible with the physics of nature, I cannot help but cringe just a little. Did I do this to my child? Isn't life just a bit easier when you conform? Or at least keep your thoughts to yourself? And when my older son, my tranquil, balanced, beautiful, nature loving boy who everyone can't help but fall in love with, looks at me this morning over breakfast in a busy restaurant and says, "there are so many people who basically talk about nothing, only war and money and power", and writes his term paper on "the inability of Americans to see how they are perceived around the world as it relates to their general lack of exposure to other languages and cultures, resulting in a pronounced difficulty to even speak foreign languages", I prickle for how this may be taken by those around him, no matter how dreamy eyed or lovable he is. Their views in any Italian classroom would likely be just as charged in that context, just as controversial. Their views in an American classroom are always provocative, hence my inner cringe.

But the cringe doesn't last. Right behind it is the pride of seeing my children with free reins on their thoughts, on their futures and their possibilities. While I know they have each faced enormous challenges living the life we have created for them up to now, their truest sense of identity seems to finally be coming from somewhere within as opposed to somewhere outside. Life is never easy for the self aware, but it is lived, no? While all parents wish the smoothest of roads under the feet of their children, I also know that mine will travel roads full of unexpected hairpin turns, potholes, uphill strides and dangerous downhill races. The road is not straight, but varied, with open vistas and tight canyons, familiar faces and exotic strangers, cultures different and the same. They will surely fall. I can only hope they will get up and brush off the dust from their knees. They have so far.

How I envy them once I get past the cringe of seeing them challenged. The ultimate nonconformists, the ultimate free thinkers.


Anonymous said...

Kudos to you! Those are the kinds of things kids should be thinking about. It's a pity they don't live in a more open-minded place (NYC for example) where they could meet & mingle with students who also think outside of the box.

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student_gourmand said...

I liked this post. But I wouldn't class your son as a non-comformist, because there are lots of people in the world like him, but as someone who can think for himself. Not enough people do, and then those who don't end up giving baseless arguments like the girl in his class did. This then makes the rest of the world look down on them. No-one likes the ignorant.

Also, I can't imagine conforming to be much easier. The smarter he gets, the more it'll pain him to try to be something he doesn't agree with. The harder it'll be to reconcile his tactful answers to the idea that there is ignorance around him, that he should speak up, and inform.

Oh and as a British commentator, I believe that if more parents raised their children like you seem to the world would be less irritated with America, and very appreciative. Your son is leaps ahead of a lot of adults. I hope if I ever have kids, I can raise them not to be sheep-like. But I suppose there's a danger in not conforming for non-conformity's sake.

Wow, I meant to make one little comment and I ramble. Anyway, peace and much love,

jennifer said...

Thank you--